Canadian bishop addresses hearings on aboriginal schools

OTTAWA – One of seven Canadian bishops who met for the first time with the Assembly of First Nations’ national chief said he hopes the upcoming hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be balanced.

Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie of Keewatin-The Pas said he hopes the hearings will include not only the experiences of victims of abuse at the aboriginal residential schools but also those of the religious and clergy who gave their lives to working in the schools.

Archbishop Lavoie told a news conference following the Jan. 29 meeting that there were “a lot of good intentions” at the schools, run by churches and maintained by the federal government between 1870 and 1996.

“And sometimes the very people staffing the schools were perhaps in some ways victims themselves of a flawed system, of unreal expectations and certainly perhaps very unjust working hours,” he said.

“I think we’ll be able to tell the full story, which I think Canada needs to hear,” Archbishop Lavoie said.

Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine said he recognized that thousands of Catholic religious worked “in what they sincerely believed to be in the best interest of Indian Residential School students.”

“However, it is important for these religious communities to both openly acknowledge their role in Indian Residential Schools and to hear directly from First Nations regarding their experiences,” he said. “The assistance and participation of the Catholic organizations are integral in the healing and reconciliation process.”

Archbishop Lavoie said, “Certainly, mistakes were made, and we’re open to acknowledging that and being responsible but, most of all, we’re hoping the story is … balanced.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, part of the $2.2 billion Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, will begin hearing testimony sometime this year from victims of sexual and physical abuse at the schools run by various denominations, including more than 40 Catholic dioceses and religious orders. The Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches also ran schools and were part of the settlement.

In October, Archbishop James Weisgerber of Winnipeg, Manitoba, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, told Canadian Catholic News the bishops “want to be very positively involved.” Though he was speaking about the participation of individual bishops, in January CCCB spokesman Sylvain Salvas said the conference would make a presentation to the commission.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission will begin hearings once a chair and two commissioners are selected from a short list being considered by Canadian Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl and Fontaine. The commission received about 300 suggested names for these roles. Once the appointments are announced, the hearings will begin.

The settlement agreement includes a government compensation package for every student who attended the schools. Some have argued the schools were a form of cultural genocide because they separated the students from their families, their communities and their languages.

The more than 40 Catholic entities that ran residential schools are responsible for $80 million toward healing and reconciliation, which includes cash settlements and in-kind services.

Archbishop Lavoie’s archdiocese includes parts of Ontario and Manitoba. Other bishops who took part in the January meeting included Coadjutor Bishop Murray Chatlain of Mackenzie-Fort Smith, Northwest Territories; Bishop Gary Gordon of Whitehorse, Yukon; Archbishop Gerard Pettipas of Grouard-McLennan, Alberta; Bishop Vincent Cadieux of Moosonee-Hearst, Ontario; Bishop Eugene Tremblay of Amos, Quebec; and Manitoba-based Bishop Reynald Rouleau of Churchill-Hudson Bay.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.